As she boarded the school bus parked along the huge playground she so much adored, Bammu was happy and satiated with her day well-spent, just like it was on every school-day she had known, in anticipation of the one coming up next.
As her eyes scanned the insides of the bus, she found a few early comers occupying “prime” seats (= window-side, front or back). One look and you knew the kind of day they had – shirts partly un-tucked, ink-smudged hands, unruly hair and loosely suspended neck-ties. Bammu had just made herself comfortable in one of the few remaining window-seats when she noticed something amiss.
A rugged piece of cloth was draped over the big green bonnet. Darji, never did that, she wondered, even when the bonnet heated up during the drive. Darji was their elderly driver. He walked with a limp and had always been old, as far as 10-year old Bammu could remember. He was kind to them, even when they created a ruckus in the bus, which he calmly steered through the Delhi traffic, twice a day – to and from school.
As the bus filled up, Bawra – the lanky bus conductor did a quick mental roll call of students and signalled to someone outside. The pigeon-door on the driver’s side flung-open as a bald and burly man hurled himself in. He dumped himself comfortably into ‘Darji’s seat’. Who is he? Where is Darji? Bammu felt angry and confused. Other children in the bus grew quiet too, finding an unfamiliar adult among them.
Inexplicably, Bammu found herself harbouring a blot of dislike for the “intruder”.
As their bus hurtled along Delhi roads, on a well-memorised route, nothing outside seemed to cheer Bammu. Her gaze kept darting between the dusty streets and honking vehicles outside and the intruder-at-the-wheel inside. Two students started grappling in the rear. The ‘intruder’ harked while still driving and Bawra lunged to extricate the smaller fighter from a knotted clump of limbs. As instructed, he perched the bruised boy on the rug-covered bonnet. The evacuee tidied his crumpled uniform and stole a side-stare at the driver. The intruder took his eyes off the road for a second to smile back…the child sighed with relief.
The blot receded to a smudge. What happened to Darji?
Entering the narrow, crowded streets of Sat Nagar, the bus sped and crawled intermittently. At one point, the bus screeched to a halt suddenly and everyone shrieked. Memories of another day flashed past Bammu – that of a substitute driver, Saddu, chiding her and other children for standing and chatting along the aisles in a moving bus. Since that day, everyone was afraid of Saddu. They were careful to remain glued to their seats on the days when Darji was on leave and Saddu took his place. She looked around – today too, everyone was ensconced in their seats, firmly gripping the handles in their front. Thank God, none had fallen or hurt themselves! Saddu was bald … like the intruder, recalled Bammu.
The smudge was now a speck.
The bus was still on halt when Darji boarded, his bandaged left hand in a sling. The intruder stood up briefly as they exchanged pleasantries. He then delicately adjusted the lone bonnet-seater to make space for Darji to sit near him. The two pilots chatted happily as the bus started moving again.
Peace descended on Bammu as she leaned sideways, resting her chin on her hand placed near the window. She soaked in the multitude of colours that bobbed in and out of the lazily passing streets.
A whiff of air caressed her forehead and blew away the speck.